Penn Jillette’s “Presto”: A Review



Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) lost 100 pounds eating only potatoes.

And not exercising.

And then wrote a book about it.

I read it.  I wanted to hate it.  I really, really did.  And, I did….as an English teacher.  Jillette’s writing style is rambly, liberally seasoned with profanity, and aggressive.  The book could be about half the length if he stuck to the point but instead he waxes “philosophical” for whole chapters about B list celebrities he knows, stupid stunts he’s pulled in the past, and loosely bound extended metaphors.  Eventually at the end of each chapter he tries unsuccessfully to wrap it back around to a point about weight loss and diet.  As a memoir, the book has too much of an agenda, as a diet book there is too much memoir.  It fails on both fronts.

But about his diet…

To be clear, what Penn Jillette did was NOT eat only potatoes and no exercise.  That’s the media bite that will be used to sell the book.  Jillette ate nothing but plain potatoes for two weeks and then slowly added back into his diet whole, natural, unprocessed foods.

While I would NEVER advocate that someone only eat plain potatoes for two weeks, I have to admit that I applaud much of what Jillette says it did for him.  Primarily, it broke his addiction to sugar, salt, and fat and altered many of his unhealthy eating habits that were just that:  habit.  Jillette talks about finally being able to taste the real taste of food again at the end of his two week potato fast.  He tells an anecdote wherein he talks about the candy like qualities of un-buttered, un-salted corn on the cob (corn is primarily sugar).

My favorite point that Jillette makes is that we have forgotten that sometimes not eating is an option.  As an entertainer, Jillette eats out A LOT.  So when he radically changed his diet (even after the potatoes) to something that did not resemble the Standard American Diet he faced a conundrum.  Compromise and get something close to ok, or don’t eat?  Our culture has a spiderweb of unwritten rules and norms surrounding meal times.  But we have forgotten that sometimes not eating is a choice.

And about the no exercise thing:  While Jillette was on his radically restricted diet, his “guru” told him no exercise.  But all the meant was he wasn’t allowed to go to the gym for an hour, or put in a 30 minute workout DVD.  He WAS allowed, and even encouraged, to be more active in his daily life.  Playing with his kids or going for a walk with his wife were all on the menu, so to speak.

Jillette starts out the book by saying he is a juggler whose only higher education is clown college.  He says the book is his story only, and not to be taken as gospel.  While I, surprisingly, agree with Jillette’s diet’s main tenants (Get off the Sugar, Salt, Fat and Processed Foods; don’t just exercise but arrange your life to be more active) Jillette admits that he has an extreme personality and needed an extreme diet to help him lose weight.  The so called potato diet isn’t for everyone.  My main concern is that the sound bite of “Celebrity eats only potatoes, doesn’t exercise, looses 100 pounds”  will be all that Joe Public hears and we will soon be seeing a shortage of french fries.